Editor’s note: In the submission call for this series, I asked everybody to answer two questions: how has the pandemic affected your creative practice, and how will the world change?
The short answer, Michael, is that I will change nothing and I doubt the world will change. The slightly longer answer is that the world has always been unravelling: in our lifetimes, there have been multiple genocides and there hasn’t been a single day without apartheid or war. As I’m fond of saying, the apocalypse is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.
A predicament many writers are suddenly facing, staring into the white eye of pandemic, is this: how can we write something that feels true if what’s true keeps being beaten, burnt up, disappeared, diseased, disintegrated, dissolved, eviscerated—gutted like a fish, pulled away from under us, quarantined, quashed, revealed to have been lies and slander? How can we write something real? How can we put pen to paper to lovingly describe the deck chairs on the Titanic when the ship is sinking and they won’t keep still?
First, reader, if this is the first time you’re feeling this particular feeling of the world being sucked into the drain, vorticing your words away and mixing your metaphors with sewage water and rising bile, and I say this without meaning to be flippant or to dismiss the very real panic, congratulations. Up until now you, somehow, had comparative stability. You were, somehow, not living with the threat of climate change that keeps thrumming the threads of all our lives vibrating right next to your ear. Or a myriad of the other things that threaten to devour us. You were making sandcastles at the top of the hourglass. You may have known about the threat of literal apocalypse, but you didn’t feel it bodily. That’s good, for your life. That’s good.
At some point in the history of literature, the horizon crashed into the International Date Line and all fiction that was being written turned into speculative fiction. I don’t know exactly when that was, because the International Date Line is imaginary, but maybe it was the day after the Berlin Wall was razed. Maybe it was the day before Iceland fined and imprisoned its bankers that had caused the economy to collapse. Maybe it was yesterday, but I doubt it. More to the point, there is no longer such a thing as fiction that is not speculative.
Normally, in the world you thought you lived in before, speculative fiction was the catch-all term for a specific market of fiction dominated by science fiction and fantasy, but where other genres such as steampunk, horror, alternate history, and the like also resided. In this definition, writing with strong similarities to speculative fiction but which comes from a tradition of more literary or mainstream elements, such as slipstream, magical realism, modern fairy tales and technothrillers, has usually not been included under the umbrella. This division is purely market-based, as all genres are. What defines speculative fiction is a point of departure from our world: a man with giant batwings under his suit, telekinesis, a portal through a mirror to another world, the continents on Earth itself being arranged differently, the year 3001, Napoleon victorious at Waterloo. The points of departure are different in nature, but they are all flipped variables. 0 to 1. In our world, the one you used to live in, the Soviet Union did not put a man on the Moon before America did. In the world you used to inhabit, freak storms did not sink all of Columbus’ fleet. In that world, Neanderthals didn’t evolve parallel to us. But what if they did? And so on.
Some variables are more influential than others; some changes cascade other changes. What you’re experiencing is whole arrays turned into garbage code, though, and it’s natural to not be able to parse this. Some of you have felt this before, and maybe the only thing that made you able to create art again was manually going down to the fuse box of your life and flipping the variables one by one: not homeless anymore, not in love with that asshole, five thousand kilometres away from family, eleven days without skipping a meal, twelve days without skipping a meal, thirteen days without skipping a meal.
You’re not going to have that much access to that fuse box while the societal web is tearing. But the principle remains the same.
This is not a controversial statement: all fiction is based on points of departure from the world you believed yourself to be a part of, because otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction. So the thing that separated speculative fiction from the other fiction, disregarding the market argument, was the nature of the variable. The point of departure was such that the world felt like a different place, right? And now, when you think back on a working class novel from the 1980s that you’ve read, it uncannily feels like it was written in a different world. But it hasn’t changed. It is merely speculative, and you’re seeing it.
So, you don’t know which variables do what in the web you’re seeing unravelling. You’re standing in your indoor sandals in the basement, flipping light switches and trying to get the floor to stop yawning open. If you’re a speculative writer already, you might have an advantage here, because you already know how to scout for the variables. If there’s no ink when you try to type, you probably need to imagine the world you’re writing in first. You don’t have to write what you know, you can take one variable at a time. (It’s always like that in trying to make the world better than it is, which is what you should be trying to do.) Speculate. Rinse, repeat. Depart.
April 5, 2020